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On March 3, IREHR Board Member Leonard Zeskind spoke at a Kansas City, Missouri NAACP Black History event entitled “African Americans and the Fourteenth Amendment.”  Below is a slightly edited version of his talk.

Good afternoon! My name is Leonard Zeskind. I am a Lifetime member of the NAACP. I am also a founder of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, which tracks white supremacy and works to oppose it. I am very glad to be here at this NAACP forum during the 150th anniversary year of the Fourteenth Amendment.

I believe that if you are going to defend the 14th Amendment, and fight for racial and economic justice, you should know the true nature of the opposition.  We should not fight blind, or half blind. I believe that the opposition to the 14th amendment, the opposition to equality before the law, the opposition to birthright citizenship, and full first class citizenship in the United States, that opposition is big and dangerous.

I must admit that I only started paying attention to the 14th Amendment in 1983.  At that time, I was tracking a white supremacist organization known as the Posse Comitatus.  I went to one of their rallies at Cheney Lake State Park, about 35 miles from Wichita.  One of the speakers spent a great deal of time explaining that he was a “Sovereign” citizen, not a 14th Amendment citizen.

Now some of you may have heard me tell this story before. Or read it in more detail in my book, Blood and Politics.  So I ask your forbearance.

This speaker based his “sovereign” theory on the racialized notion that white people like him were descendants of the white people mentioned in the Preamble to the Constitution.  He and others like him had rights and responsibilities superior to those he called Fourteenth Amendment citizens.  He and the sovereigns got their rights from God, while Fourteenth Amendment citizens got their rights from the government.

Now there were only white people at this rally. And the sovereign told them that all they had to do to be like him was give up all their “contracts” with the government. That is, turn in all their driver licenses, social security numbers, marriage licenses, etc.  Then they would not have to pay taxes.  In his theory, only 14th amendment citizens needed to pay taxes.

Now this theory was extremely popular in the 1980s.  Aryan Nations members in the Pacific Northwest spread it.  And here in the Midwest-Great Plains, bankrupt family farmers bought it hoping to get out from under their debt.  The only thing it got them was sentences to jail.

Now this anti-14th Amendment theory lived on into the 1990s.  It infected many of the militias that were growing at that time.  The militias added a twist, claiming they drew their rights to create a private army from their “state citizenship,” which was at odds with their federal 14th amendment citizenship.

One of the most infamous partisans of this sovereign craziness was Terry Nichols, who helped plan the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Please do not tell me that this white supremacist attack on the 14th Amendment does not matter.

Today, the most insidious attack on the 14th Amendment comes from Congress.  Following Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, they believe you can separate “birthright citizenship” from the 14th Amendment.  Their ideas are too complicated to spell out now. But please believe that this insidious, anti-immigrant notion is all too prevalent.

At present, a bill in the House of Representatives authored by Iowa Congressman Steven King, H.R. 140, has 42 cosponsors. This means that right now there are 43 congressional reps who want to break the back of the 14th Amendment.

In 1996, the Republican Party platform called for legislation or constitutional amendment to break birthright citizenship.

And President Trump is on record as referring to the children of undocumented immigrants as “anchor babies.” A slur word if I ever heard one. And he too believes the patently false idea that birthright citizenship can be separated from the 14th Amendment.

I want to make one final point, police killings of black people are a direct violation of the 14th Amendment and “equality before the law.”  In 2015, 1,134 black people were killed by police.  25% of them were unarmed at the time of death.  I mean murder.

I would like to close by saying: the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall brought the 14th Amendment back to life in 1954, with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v Topeka Board of Education.  We need to defend it now as if our lives depend upon it; because they do.







Chuck Tanner

Author Chuck Tanner

Chuck Tanner is an Advisory Board member and researcher for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. He lives in Washington State where he researches and works to counter white nationalism and the anti-Indian and other far right social movements.

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